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Woodturning for the Holidays

12/24/2021 By Joe Samalin

Look what I did!
Look what I did!

Happy holidays to everyone who celebrates, and hope that folks are doing as well as can be in these somewhat trying times. The holidays can often be an added stressor for people, and that is why when I saw that my good friend and turning teacher Alan Dorsey was holding a christmas turning session I jumped all over the chance to dust off my turning tools and spend a few hours relaxing and having fun.

What was meant to be a 4 hour session turned into an hour and a half for me, as I discovered that our car had been the victim of a hit-and-run the night before, our dog was sick with what turned out to be an ear infection, and it wouldn’t stop raining. But after the police report, car being towed, and my partner taking the dog to the vet in the rain (thank you!), I finally hopped in a cab and was on my way to turn on some holiday cheer!

This wasn’t so much a turning class, but a “coaching session” of sorts with Alan to practice spindle turning and make some cool christmas swag. The local woodworking studio has about 7 lathes for folks to work on, and arriving late I jumped on one machine and dove into some christmas trees.

Woodturning is the art of spinning wood at high rates of speed on a woodturning lathe, and then carving or whittling the wood with specialized tools. It is a very specific part of the world of woodworking, and can become quite addictive as unlike furniture making and many other types of woodworking, you can start and finish a project (be it a pen, a bowl, or a vase) in a few hours or less.

Spindle turning is one of two main types of woodturning one can do on a lathe, attaching a long thin piece of wood on both ends to the lathe (such as for pens), as opposed to faceturning which requires only one end to be attached (such as for bowls).

Turned christmas trees are relatively simple to make, and can be done in a variety of designs. Starting with a rectangular block of wood, you suspend it between the head and tail of the lathe and first turn that rectangle into a cylinder. This is quickly done with roughing gouge, one of the main tools used in turning.

Roughing gouges of different sizes.
Roughing gouges of different sizes.,

Wood turning blanks
Wood turning blanks, and what they will hopefully become, a pretty xmas tree!

Then, using the same gouge, you start to take down one end of the wood at an angle, creating the basic conic shape of the tree.

Roughing your blank down to tree shape.
Roughing your blank down to tree shape.

Once you have your tree’s shape established, you can start the fun part of separating out the layers which will give the impression of branches! Using a parting tool, which does exactly what it sounds like, you create your first set of branches. Then using a divider set at a regular distance we marked evenly spaced breaks in our tree, following up with the parting tool to create them.

Parting tools of various shapes and sizes.
Parting tools of various shapes and sizes.,

Of course you can design the trees however you want, the only limits being your imagination. Some folks left a round ball at the top of their trees as ornaments, some carved stars to sit atop their trees. Some colored and painted them, I left mine plain. I decided against sanding the trees as the rough feel made it more, well, tree-like to me.

Then it was on to the tougher turn - Frosty the snowman. While a relatively simple design, it involved a bit more tricky set of skills, namely creating rounded beads for the three main parts of Frosty’s body. This is done with a different type of gouge - a spindle gouge, The shape of the cutter on a spindle gouge is tighter and more closed/rounded than on the roughing gouge, allowing you to create curves on a spindle by turning the gouge when in contact with your wood. It takes a bit of practice but you can get it pretty quickly.

Spindle gouges
Spindle gouges,

Alan created and brought a Frosty story pole of sorts as a guide to mark out the measurements for our snowmen.

A simple guide made to help us with our snowpeople.
A simple guide made to help us with our snowpeople.

We could hold this up to the block of wood while spinning on the lathe and use a pencil to mark the lines for the body and hat, so we would know where to cut each shape.

The masterpiece in progress.
The masterpiece in progress.

The head turned out (pun very intended) a bit more squished than intended, but I am still getting the hang of using the spindle gouge to turn beads, and I kind of like the look anyway. Lastly I had to turn the three sections of the iconic top hat - brim, middle, and, um, top? I wanted it to have a lot of curve in the top part, and was very happy with how it came out.

Getting there!
Getting there!

Then a quick sanding with 120 grit paper while on the lathe (you can also finish your piece on the lathe while spinning, allowing you to evenly apply and even buff out your finish) and we used a parting tool to cut the piece from the lathe chuck.

Sanding goes so much quicker when the wood is moving already.
Sanding goes so much quicker when the wood is moving already.

With only 1.5 hours to turn I was only able to get 2 trees and 1 snowman done (see main picture at the top). What I could have done with the full time…But it was a lot of fun and a great reminder of how much I like turning. I left the block on the top of the tree on the right to try my hand at carving a star there! I slightly flattened the top of the tree on the left in order to attach a small eye screw and use it as an ornament on our christmas tree this year. I know, very meta. If you have the opportunity you should give it a try as well!

Happy Holidays to all
Happy Holidays to all

Join the conversation
12/24/2021 William Belfi
Glad to see the Christmas spirit is alive and well despite your trials and tribulations. Using basic skills and an available workshop you produced two pieces which could bring joy to others for years to come. I enjoyed your article, complete with photos and I plan to do a little spindle turning of my own.
Merry Christmas and Happy and Healthy New Year.
Bill Belfi
12/24/2021 Curt Meissner
If the woodwork studio is in Brooklyn, could you please share the name.
12/29/2021 Joe Samalin
William - thanks and appreciate the message. I really hope to get more into woodturning as soon as I can figure out how to do so in my NYC apartment......It is a messy way of working with wood. Share your turning work with us - want to see those pics!

Curt - check out Makeville in Brooklyn. Great stuff!
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